We unashamedly love our city. Most who come to know and love it will still struggle to say what it is exactly that inspires that affection. In truth its many many things, its people, their outlook, their wit, their indefatigable spirit, their openness. All very difficult things to explain.
Its landscape, topography and architecture all play a part too and is much easier to explain. Its buildings and street layout speak to many influences -very Irish, British too in places, but also significant French, Dutch and Portuguese flavours. The city centre is an island and so the river, quays, bridges and tides all add to a unique character.
Cork City Hall C.1900 -before the fire
The original City Hall Building before it’s burning on Decc11-12 1920
City Hall Circa. Dec 1920 -After the fire
By the Spring of 1921 The City Hall in ruins. Of its Three preceding Mayors one was shot in his bed by masked policemen, another had died on Hunger Strike in a prison in England and the third was in exile in America having been spirited out of the City as the authorities hunted him.
The single most significant influence on the streetscape of Cork was the reconstruction of Patrick Street in the 1920’s.
On the night of 11th and into the morning of the 12th of December 1920 a very large part of the centre of the city was razed by British Crown Forces.
The para-military police force, known as The Auxiliaries were made up of demobilized British WW1 officers, were based in what is now Collins Barracks just north of the city centre.
Tension was high in the city in the preceding weeks. In an Irish Republican Army ambush west of the city just weeks earlier 17 Auxiliaries were killed. The War of Independence was at its height and Cork was its epicenter.
The cities two previous Mayors had been murdered and died on hunger strike respectively. It’s Mayor on the night of the burning would escape a similar fate by being smuggled out of the city on a Freight Ship bound for New York.
Central St. Patrick Street C.1915
Some of the French and Dutch inspired buildings on Patrick Street. The facade of No.31 (in the centre) would survive the fire and feature in many British newspapers and news footage over the following days.
The same stretch of st. Patrick Street on the morning after the fire
The hollowed out skeleton of No.31 is all the only landmark locals would have had as they surveyed the scene.
Britain was losing its control in Ireland. In Cork, its writ ran not far beyond its barrack gates. In an attempt to regain some control the British Government declared Martial Law in Cork city and County and declared a night-time curfew.
In the days and hours before the fire the Police and Army clashed with IRA units across the city including a unit of UCC students.
The city was a powder keg and when IRA ambushed them again on the evening of December 11th this time practically at the gates of their barracks killing one and wounding 11 more the city braced itself for the inevitable.
Over the next several hours K Battalion of the Police Auxiliary Division(Auxies) descended on the City from it’s barracks above the city. In its path Dillon’s Cross, St. Luke's, modern day McCurtain Street all suffered looting, arson and shootings. On the inland Patrick Street was destroyed and on the south The City Hall, The Library and other buildings on Anglesea Street were set alight and destroyed.
The cities Firemen who sought to save what bits of the city they could were attacked by the police with gunfire and grenades injuring several. Next morning the city woke to a smoldering ruin. Fire brigade units from Dublin who traveled overnight to help with the blaze described what they encountered as on a par with destruction of O’Connell Street in 1916 after a week of artillery fire.
The Carnegie free library.
The Library was beloved of the citizens at the time.
The remnants of the Carnegie Free Library after the fire
Being working men themselves the city’s firemen knew well the value a library was to cities people. They fought desperately to save the library and its contents whilst coming under gun and grenade and attack from the Police.
After initially blaming the citizens for starting the fires the British Government eventually accepted their forces were responsible and paid compensation.
The City we know today is a product of that extensive rebuilding.
The liberty we enjoy in today was accelerated by the events of that night.
What is Cork?
But don’t just take our word for it. Limerick Writer Kevin Barry wrote of Cork
But there are in fact other places in the world, and Cork’s relationship with them is complicated. Its tendency with regards to Dublin, for example, is to studiously ignore it. To recognise it as an entity at all would be to grant that it might be considered as an alternative to Cork, even as a rival to it, and that would be ludicrous. When Cork people laughingly refer to the city as ‘the real capital’, the laughter is just a mask, or a defence mechanism – they are in fact utterly serious. Dublin is four times bigger, physically, but Cork people will insist that in terms of culture, food, pubs, natural beauty, hipness, setting, glamour, atmosphere, music and people, it is not just a little but markedly inferior.